Sunday, March 30, 2008

Organize Your Garage

Tip of the Week, March 23, 2008

You've seen it before--if not at your own house, then at the home of a friend or neighbor: the garage is so full of stuff that the household's cars are relegated to the driveway or the street. And I'd bet good money that nine times out of ten, whatever's lurking in the garage is nowhere near as valuable as the vehicles forced to lurk outside.

We tend to fill our garages not only with things that probably belong there, such as tools and sporting equipment, but also with stuff we haven't been able to (or haven't wanted to) make decisions about. Garages are, in short, often the place things go to die, or at least to limp along clinging onto dear life for year after year.

Why not make this year the one in which you put that stuff out of its misery, reclaim your garage as usable space for the things you actually need, and bring a bit more order to your life? The longer, brighter, warmer days of spring are the perfect time to tackle a garage organizing project. Here are a few tips to get you started.

Create a staging area
Because much of what lands in the garage is big and bulky, it's important to give yourself enough space to work when sorting and weeding through the stuff here. Before you get things underway, decide on a staging area: a spot where you'll be able to gather things from your garage that you're throwing or giving away. Keeping this stuff separate from the things you want to keep will prevent unwanted stuff from being reabsorbed into the garage. A section of your driveway or yard can be a great staging area; another option is to use a specific corner of the garage (ideally one close to the door!). Subdivide your staging area into sections, one for stuff headed to the dump and another for things to be donated. You might also want to create a spot for "undecideds": items you can't quite make decisions on just yet.

Weed, weed, weed
With your staging area ready to go, start weeding. Depending on how full your garage is, you might choose weed area by area, or you might decide to gather all of one kind of thing--sporting goods, for example--from throughout the garage and then tackle the weeding. As always, remember that your goal here is to cull the stuff you no longer want, use, or need so it'll be easier to organize the stuff that's useful and necessary in your life as you're living it now. Challenge yourself to make decisions on as many things as you can, rather than delegating everything to the "undecideds" pile. Clutter, and especially garage clutter, is often the result of delayed decisions. Now's the time to make those decisions and clear out the clutter.

Take it away
Once you've decided what to toss or donate, make a real effort to get this stuff out of your staging area as soon as possible--and I don't mean back into the garage! If you think you'll have significant loads of stuff to get rid of, it's a good idea to arrange for a rental truck or a Dumpster, or to schedule a pick-up from a hauler, before you start working. Even if you only have small loads, though, getting them to their final destinations ASAP makes it much less likely that they'll find their way back into the garage.

Plan your storage systems
When you're through weeding and have bid your unwanted stuff a final goodbye, start planning storage systems for the stuff you plan to keep. As with storage systems anywhere else in the home or office, those you choose for the garage should make it easy to find what you need and put things away again. You don't need an elaborate built-in system to bring order to the garage (though such systems are certainly one option); even a few sets of sturdy, weatherproof shelves and a few simple wall hooks can do wonders. Before deciding on a system, be sure to measure the space in which you'll use it and do an inventory of the stuff it needs to hold (so you can be sure it's the right size).

Keep up the progress
Finally, commit to maintaining your garage organizing systems once they're in place: put things away when you're done with them, do a periodic sort-and-weed session to reconnect with the stuff you're storing, and don't let yourself fall prey to the tempation to stash things in the garage because you're not sure what else to do with them.

Once your garage is in order, park your car there as a reminder of what the garage is really meant to store. You'll protect one of your most valuable assets and will help keep the space from being overrun by clutter.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

The Basics: Deciding Where Things Go

Tip of the Week, March 16, 2008

Organizing isn't rocket science--in fact, it's not really a science at all, but rather more of an art. With an understanding of the basics of the organizing process, many people find it relatively easy to get and stay organized. This week's Tip, then, kicks off an occasional series that will outline these basics, including smart strategies for sorting and weeding and how to pick the best organizing supplies. First up: how to decide where things should go.

Why it matters
Clients often confess that they feel lazy or inadequate because they can't keep their home or office organized. When we start looking at the stuff that tends to cause clutter, I always ask where each thing goes, and that's when the truth comes out: much of it doesn't have a home, so putting things away becomes a daunting, if not seemingly impossible, task. One very simple bottom line about this work is that spaces that look and feel disorganized often look and feel that way because they're full of things that don't belong there; bringing calm and order to those spaces, then, involves finding or creating homes for these roaming items. Put plainly, you can't put something away if there's no "away" for it to go to. Creating logical, convenient, sufficient storage for things throughout your home or office, then, is a critical step in getting organized.

Where do I use it?
Deciding where things go can be tricky, but a few basic questions can help simplify the process. First, ask yourself where you most commonly use each item you're trying to find a home for. Ideally, aim to store things as close as possible to where you use them so it's easy to pull them out when you need them and put them back when you're done. This means that in the kitchen, for example, you'd keep pots and pans close to the stove and sponges and dish soap close to the sink. In an office, supplies you use regularly--such as a stapler and pens--belong within arm's reach when you're sitting at your desk; items you use less frequently are best kept elsewhere so they don't clutter your main workspace.

What else is like it?
One of the most basic organizing tenets is "like with like": keep similar items together in the same spot. When deciding where something should go, ask yourself if you have anything else like it, and aim to put these related things together. For example, when considering where to store quilting supplies, ask yourself if there are other craft materials (sewing kits, scrapbooking supplies, and so on) elsewhere in the house; if so, store everything in the same general area. That way, you'll know that when you're looking for a craft supply (no matter what the craft), you're likely to find it in one particular spot.

Keeping like things together not only reduces the number of places you need to look when you're searching for something, but also makes it easy to see at a glance how much of something you have. If you have canned goods in several different cabinets in the kitchen, for example, you're more likely to buy something you already have (but couldn't find) than you'd be if all of your cans were in the same spot.

How often do I use it?
When I work with clients to organize their spaces for maximum efficiency, one of the things I ask about each item is how often it's used. Clients are often amazed to realize that they rarely touch the stuff taking up space in their easiest-to-reach closets, cabinets, and drawers, while things they use all the time are hard to get to. Before you give something a home, then, ask yourself how often you use it. Those items you reach for again and again--clothes you wear weekly, the wooden spoons you use when cooking dinner each night, the books you read to your kids all the time--should occupy the most valuable "real estate" in the room: the center of your closet, the drawer closest to the stove, an easily accessible bookshelf. Things you pull out a few times a year, such as special occasion cookware or dishes, belong in out-of-the-way spots so you won't have to fuss with them on a daily basis.

How big is it?
Finally, ask yourself how much storage you need to stash each item efficiently and effectively. Trying to shoehorn a large item into a small space will make it difficult to pull the thing out when you need it and equally difficult to put it back, decreasing the chances that you'll do either. And stashing small things in large spaces not only wastes potentially valuable storage, it also makes it more likely that the items will get lost in the vastness of the space. Look for spaces that comfortably fit what you need to store. Be sure to gather like things together before determining how much storage space you need so you won't run the risk of choosing a cabinet that doesn't fit all of your pots and pans, for example, or selecting a bookshelf that's not quite large enough for all of your books.

Choosing smart storage spots for things in your home or office is an important step in creating an organizing system that will work for you long-term. Take the time to ask yourself these questions when establishing storage locations to be sure the spots you choose are convenient, effective, and efficient.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Is Paperless-ness Possible?

Tip of the Week, March 9, 2008

One of the most common complaints I hear from clients, friends, and family alike is that people feel that their lives are overwhelmed with paper. For most of us, paper is unlike anything else--kitchen gadgets, clothes, and so on--in that more of it arrives every day whether we want it to or not. It can be tempting, then, to strive for a paperless existence.

But is that realistic? Here are a few reasons why it is, a few why it isn't, and some tips on how to smartly cut back on paper in your life.

Heading toward paperlessness...
One of the original purposes of the personal computer was to limit the amount of paper we use, and perhaps to eliminate paper entirely. Anyone who's ever printed an e-mail or a web page knows that sometimes exactly the opposite is the case: it's possible for computers to bring even more paper into our lives. The good news, though, is that the computer is also one of the most useful tools when it comes to cutting back on paper.

There's so much we're now able to do electronically that once required paper, including paying bills, browsing catalogs, booking travel, communicating with others, reading the newspaper, and even sharing photos. If you're truly comfortable with techology, you can significantly cut down on paper by doing as much as possible online. You can also get yourself removed from mailing lists to reduce the amount of mail that arrives each day.

...But stopping short of quite getting there
That said, chances are you'll still find paper coming into your life, whether in the form of a greeting card or handwritten letter (remember those?), homework your kids bring back from school, or a memo that lands on your desk at work. It's challenging--if not downright impossible--to get everyone else in your life on board with paperlessness, so it's somewhat unrealistic to think that you'll be able to ditch paper altogether.

Furthermore, there's probably at least some paper you won't want to get rid of entirely, such as magazines, books, truly special photos, and memorabilia. You might also want to keep some archived files (such as birth certificates and old tax returns) around for sanity's sake.

Reducing paper
Even if you're not yet ready to aim for cutting paper out of your life altogether, there are easy ways to cut back on it. As mentioned earlier, online or automatic bill pay is a quick, easy, and convenient way to limit your paper intake, especially when you use it for monthly expenses like utilities.

You can also stem the flow of paper by being very conscious of what you print. Before you send an e-mail or a web page to the printer, ask yourself whether you really need a paper copy of it. This practice can save you dozens (if not hundreds) of pages, not to mention a lot of ink, which is quite possibly the most expensive liquid in existence!

Scanning papers you need to keep records of (such as receipts or supporting documentation for tax returns) is another smart way of cutting back on paper. Look for a scanner designed to handle big scanning jobs quickly, such as Fujitsu's Scan Snap. If you have stacks of receipts to deal with, consider Neat Receipts, a scanner specifically intended for use with receipts, business cards, and other little bits of paper.

Finally, be aware of the paper you allow into your home or office. If something's not truly interesting, useful, or necessary to you, it shouldn't come in in the first place, but if it does, bring it right to the recycle bin so it's doesn't have the chance to become clutter and/or the source of a headache later.

Smart backups
If you do start to work towards paperlessness, much of the records you once kept in paper form (bills, bank statements, receipts, etc.) will likely wind up on your computer, especially if scanning comes into the mix. It's especially important, then, to back up your computer's hard drive regularly, or to save your electronic records to a specific USB key, CD, or external hard drive. Failing to back up your electronic data puts you at risk for losing everything should your hard drive crash, which would be the equivalent of watching a filing cabinet with all of your important papers go up in flames.

It's also worth checking with the companies that bill you electronically and any financial institutions that provide access to online statements to see how far back they keep electronic records for you. You might find that your electric company has copies of your electronic bills going back several years, while your phone company has only a few months' worth. If these bills have an impact on your taxes, download them directly to your computer so you won't have to worry about not having access to them if you need them.

Though I personally hope we don't go paperless too soon (I'm too tied to handwritten notes, the Sunday paper, and my paper planner!), I see real benefits in taking advantage of the paper-reducing opportunities that technology offers. Put a few of the tips above to work in your own life and start enjoying "less-paper-ness."

Monday, March 10, 2008

Creating a Personal Mission Statement: Part 2

Tip of the Week, March 2, 2008

Last week's Tip covered the basics of a personal mission statement: what it is, why it can be useful (especially in terms of organization), and how to go about writing one. This week, we'll take a look at how to put your personal mission statement into action.

Read, review, revise
After you've created your mission statement, take some time to read it through, think about what you've written, and make any tweaks or changes you'd like. You might decide, for example, that some of the goals you jotted down seem too ambiguous or too unrealistic, so perhaps they need some rewording. Or perhaps the phrase "mission statement" makes you cringe every time you see it, in which case coming up with a new name for your document--Statement of Intent, How I'd Like to Live, Things I Believe, and so on--will help make it more meaningful to you.

Also bear in mind that your mission statement should be a flexible and changing document, and that what it looks like today may not be what it looks like next year, or even a few months from now. Feel free to make changes to your statement--or even to scrap the whole thing and start over--as your life changes.

Take a look around
Once you're happy with your statement, it's time to put it to work. For starters, take a look at how your current surroundings, schedule, and activities measure up with what you've described in your mission statement, noting any disconnects. For example, one of your goals might be to focus less on things and more on people, though you currently have a house full of stuff. Or perhaps you've decided you'd really like to be braver and more daring in the decisions you make and the activities you do, which will mean a switch from your current take-no-chances way of living.

As you review your statement, also note the areas in which you're currently living according to the goals and priorities you listed. For instance, if one of your goals is to be more aware of how you spend your money, list the things you already do that contribute to this: cooking more meals at home, thinking twice before making unnecessary purchases, contributing to a savings account every month, and so on. Continuing with the activities you already do that support your mission statement is just as important as starting new ones.

Think concretely
Armed with your mission statement and a good sense of how your current activities, surroundings, and schedule are (or aren't) contributing to it, you're ready for the next step: brainstorming some concrete ways in which you can put your statement in action.

It's important to make this exercise fun (at least somewhat!) and realistic; this brainstorming isn't meant to be a way of highlighting your shortcomings or forcing you to feel guilty about things you're not doing. Remember, your mission statement (written by you for you) exists solely as a way of helping you live a life that feels fulfilling and meaningful. This brainstorming session is a chance for you to come up with ideas, activities, and small tasks that will help contribute to that meaningful life.

With your mission statement in front of you, jot down anything and everything you can do (or already do) that will help contribute to the goals, ideas, and priorities you've listed. The things you list can be big ("Clear out the kids' closets and donate extra toys and clothes to a women's and children's center") or small ("Buy one less latte a week"), fun ("Put on upbeat music while cooking dinner") or not-so-fun ("Balance my checkbook at least once a week"). What you list is entirely up to you.

Action!
Finally, it's time to put your mission statement into action. Keep your statement and your list of supporting activities in an accessible and visible spot so you can refer to them often. Schedule time for the concrete actions you've decided to take (such as balancing your checkbook, clearing out clutter, or exercising three times a week) and commit to finding ways of working the less-concrete actions into your everyday life.

Putting your statement into action takes time, repetition, and some commitment, so don't be hard on yourself if you feel like you're not doing it quickly enough or correctly. Your mission statement is there to work for you, not vice versa.

My mission statement
As promised last week, here's the personal mission statement I wrote:

I will continue to strive to be a person of my word in everything I do. I will stop trying to race against the clock. I will remind myself often of the priceless nature of my family. I will give more, and more selflessly. I will remember how much good laughter can do. I will remember to savor the things I love and will remember that better almost always trumps more. I will not let cynicism take over. I will not grow old before my time but also won't fight the process of aging. I will remember that passion is lifeblood. I will aim to see things through. I will look up and ahead as much as (or more than) I look back. I will remind myself that I'm neither the cause of nor the solution to every problem. I will try to write something every day. I will open my eyes more widely to the city around me. I will repeat this as a mantra: "Life may not be the party we hoped for, but while we're here we should dance." I will be grateful for something every day.

Putting my statement to work for me will be easy in some ways (such as writing something every day) and difficult in others (such as being better about time management). But it accurately reflects the life I want to live, and gives me some guidance on how to live it. That, to me, is worth the effort.

Sunday, March 02, 2008

Creating a Personal Mission Statement: Part 1

Tip of the Week, February 24, 2008

Often, the urge (or need) to organize strikes in the face of a life change, whether a positive one (such as a marriage or the birth of a child) or a challenging one (such as a death or divorce). Other times, the desire to get stuff in order springs from a sense that things are out of balance, out of control, or generally not as they should be.

Whatever the reason, organizing often serves as a good way to make sure we get back on track, can live as we'd like to, and get rid of the frustrations that keep us from focusing on what's most important. As such, the time between feeling the initial urge to organize and actually getting down to it is a great time to consider creating a personal mission statement. Here's why such a thing is worth the effort, and some ideas on how to get started on one.

Defining "mission"
The word mission can mean a number of different things: a purpose, a drive, a quest, a goal. A mission statement is usually a document created by a company, group, or community to describe its goals, its priorities, and its values.

Your personal mission might be anything from what you hope to accomplish on a given day to what you feel your larger purpose in life is. Your personal mission statement, then, should support your missions large and small by defining what's important to you, what sort of life you'd like to live, and how you intend to go about fulfilling your priorities.

Why create a mission statement?
Though most of us try to live according to our values and priorities, it's all too easy to get caught up in the flow of everyday life and drift (or perhaps even paddle) away from what we know is most important. For example, how many of us would name health as a priority, only to find that we're so busy that nutritious eating and regular exercise often go out the window? A mission statement can help us refocus on what matters and find ways to keep the important things in life front and center.

Personal mission statements can also help make times of transition easier to deal with. The arrival of a child, for example, means priorities are likely to shift, as does the departure of a child for college or a life outside of the house. Taking the time to reconsider what's important as life changes can ease transitions, and might make them feel a bit less chaotic.

Missions and organizing
Many times, clients call me because they feel like the disorganization around them doesn't support or reflect the way they want to live. They might find that they're spending hours each weekend trying to deal with clutter when what they'd really like to be doing is taking the kids to the park, enjoying a movie, or doing volunteer work.

Crafting a personal mission statement can help identify the things in life that need to change (or stay the same, with a few improvements) in order for us to feel truly happy, fulfilled, and in control. The desire to make some organization-related changes--whether that means redoing a filing system or decluttering a whole house--often springs up when our goals and priorities become clear.

Creating your statement
Here's the great thing about your personal mission statement: it can be as simple or as involved as you'd like it to be. After all, it's yours. Your mission statement might take the form of an anything-and-everything, stream-of-consciousness list of the people, ideas, and things that are important to you and that you'd like to devote your time to; on the other hand, it might be a carefully written, detail-filled statement of your beliefs and priorities, complete with specific tasks to help you live in accordance with them.

Whatever form you choose, make sure your statement accurately reflects your personality, what's important to you, and how you'd like to shape your own life. Don't feel the need to aim for unrealistic ideals or to list priorities you think you should have.

You can write your statement on a computer, in crayon, on an ancient typewriter, in fountain pen--whatever you're most comfortable with. Revise, add to, and change it as much as you'd like. Just make sure it feels unquestionably you and has enough information to serve as a guide.

Want a helping hand? Try Franklin Covey's free Mission Statement Builder, an interactive online tool that lets you choose between several different methods of creating your own mission statement.

Next week, once you've had the chance to get started, we'll look at some quick and easy ways of putting your mission statement into practice. I'll also share with you the statement I created as a guide for my life.